Building Narrative Tension: Summary and Checklist

Book Nanny’s top tips for creating and sustaining suspense and tension in your novel:

MH900449057Over the past months, we’ve examined some of the key issues involved in building tension into the structure of a narrative.

So, to be sure that your scenes are creating maximum suspense and reader anticipation, here’s a checklist of the main points:

  1. Do the events and locations in each scene move the scene along physically, geographically, emotionally, and in terms of time?
  2. Is reader knowledge level or one step ahead of at least one of your POV characters?
  3. Are all readers’ expectations fulfilled and all reversals of key decisions explained?
  4. Does the reader have enough information in each scene to be able to anticipate an outcome?
  5. Does the scene up the ante or put physical or psychological pressure on the character or characters?
  6. Does the scene place external and internal obstacles and hindrances in the character’s way so they have to manoeuvre around them?
  7. Are the characters actively choosing to take action to achieve their objective in the scene?
  8. MB900411376Does the scene link to the theme of the book for one or more characters?

If the answer to the majority of the above questions is ‘yes’, chances are your scenes are doing what they need to do in order to keep readers engaged.

If not,why not have another look at Book Nanny’s series on building narrative tension:

Building Narrative Tension 1: The Tension Rises, dah … dah … doh? 

Building Narrative Tension 2: A Delicious Trail of Crumbs

Building Narrative Tension 3: Moving the Story Along

Building Narrative Tension 4: The Eleventh Hour

Building Narrative Tension 3: Moving The Story Along

In this post, we’re taking a look at how to build a sequence of scenes to maximise tension and keep readers hooked to the end. We’re using our old friends, Simon and Julia Specimen, from previous posts. As before, we have two POVs, so we will be switching between the two.

To start with, the notes for our first draft version of the sequence run something like this:

BD09315_It’s the day of the family gathering before Simon leaves for Antarctica – Julia and Simon at  breakfast – atmosphere strained and tense. Simon goes out to work – his day progresses as usual. He has an important meeting; goes to lunch with his best buddy; they talk about him leaving for Antarctica. Julia is in her garden; she chats to the neighbour, talks to her daughter, reminisces about her youth/early romance with Simon. Simon arrives home and goes up to have a shower as he always does. He’s a creature of habit. Sometimes Julia hates him for it. This is one of those times. She makes a snap decision – he won’t leave her – she won’t let him. Julia grabs a knife and rushes upstairs. 

Let’s analyse the sequence above from the point of view of building tension. First of all, showing the general ‘averageness’ of the day could be a problem; either we are in danger of repeating information from earlier in the book, or the reader will be wondering why this information wasn’t given before now. Instead, we should look at sequence carefully and pick out what is actually interesting for the reader. How about the last sentences: ‘Julia makes a snap decision’ and so on? The question is how can we make the whole day as interesting as these sentences and really build tension for the reader?

  • Reader knowledge: keep your reader level or one step ahead of your POV character.

MB900310506We discussed reader knowledge in Building Narrative Tension 2: A Delicious Trail of Crumbs. So putting that into practice: what if Julia’s decision to kill comes earlier on? In this case, the reader is level with Julia and ahead of Simon. Rather than giving the game away, this cranks up reader anticipation.Once we are aware of Julia’s intentions, average and everyday events take on a much greater significance and provide a dramatic contrast to the possible fate awaiting Simon at home that evening.

So now our first scene looks something more like this:

Early morning: as Simon’s car disappears down the driveway, Julia unloads the dishwasher to make room for the breakfast dishes. She stares at the butcher’s knife in her hand and makes her decision: she will not allow Simon to leave her. She will kill him that evening before the planned family gathering to wish him well before he leaves for the Antarctica posting.

Now that we’ve grabbed our readers’ attention, each subsequent scene needs to move the story along.  But how do you make plot choices which do just that?

  • Forward momentum: time and movement 

MB900411376Generally speaking, each scene should move on in time, bringing us closer to the climax of the sequence. Or perhaps the movement is geographical: a step further along in a character’s physical journey? Either way, actual time passing or physical movement towards a particular place or point in time helps to build a sense of forward momentum in a narrative.

  • Emotional momentum

And forward momentum shouldn’t be confined to the physical. Each new scene should move the story along emotionally or psychologically by providing readers with new character information or events which increase their sense of anticipation. So, let’s switch to Simon’s POV and ask ourselves what is important about his day, given that we now know what Julia is planning for him? Let’s move him on in time, place and give our reader some new information which will ratchet up the suspense:

MH900434593It’s mid-morning: Simon’s workplace. He’s in the middle of a good-humoured, boozy, leaving do and happily accepting good wishes for the future from his soon-to-be-ex work colleagues. Mixed feelings about leaving work, but he’s excited. He’s looking forward to the evening – after tonight everything will be resolved and he will be free of Julia and their problems.

Everything in Simon’s world is rosy, because, he, unlike the reader, has no idea of what Julia has planned for him. It’s this emotional juxtaposition of character ignorance and reader knowledge that keeps the reader on tenterhooks.

  • Put the lid on the emotional/psychological pressure cooker and turn to maximum.

We’re back with Julia; so how do we push the story along for her? Should we show her weeding the garden and waving to the nosy neighbour as usual in a bid to keep up the pretence of normality? But it’s no longer a normal day for Julia, so, instead, let’s twist a few psychological screws and see what happens. Let’s put her in a position where she has an opportunity to reveal, or is in danger of revealing, what is going on inside her:

Early afternoon: Julia’s list of things to do for the party lies on the kitchen table unread.  MB900389154Her eldest daughter, Poppy, calls. She wants to come round to help Julia out with the preparations for the family get-together. Julia has to stop her. Poppy senses her mother’s turmoil, but she thinks it is because Julia is upset at Simon leaving. In fact, there’s a hurricane blowing inside Julia and the effort not to vent her true anger and bitterness at Simon’s betrayal is almost unbearable. 

Poppy’s call raises both external and internal obstacles to Julia’s plan: there is a moment where she could change her mind, or be found out and, as readers, we are wondering whether Julia’s resolve will hold, will she crack and reveal all or will Poppy realise in time that something is terribly wrong with her mother?

TO BE CONTINUED

The Glitch in the Matrix 2: Heads will roll…

Yes, it’s true: sometimes words can be – as Gollum would put it – ‘tricksy’, and very often it’s those little physical quirks which can cause the most problems.

MB900192427Consider this conundrum which I heard on TV one evening:

‘My reflection in the mirror looked back at me like a bad smell.’

Huh?? There is a definite aroma of mixed metaphor with that one. Or rather, mixed simile (for the difference check out my earlier post ‘Shall I compare thee?‘) To start with, what exactly does a bad smell look like? Even if we manage to sort that one out, what’s the story with it looking back at you? Scary!

So please do take care that your hero is not accidentally foraying into the realm of physical impossibilities as he or she goes about their narrative business. In other words, keep an eye on what your protagonist’s eyes are doing. Are they following people across the street, rolling down mountains, sweeping across rooms or dropping to floors?

The human body is indeed a thing of wonder and it’s amazing what eyes actually can do, but, generally speaking, they tend to do it from the comfort of a person’s eye sockets rather than indulging in some perambulation of their own quite distinct from the rest of the body. Besides all that running, dropping and rolling sounds rather painful and damaging to the anatomical part in question.

Happily, a protagonist’s gaze or stare, on the other hand, can quite easily follow, roll, run or sweep across anything you wish.

The same rules apply to protagonists’ heads and other generally fixed parts of the body, by the way.

Of course if your hero is an animated cartoon character where anything goes, the above may not apply!

For other glitches in the prose matrix, see my earlier post ‘The Glitch in the Matrix 1: Dealing with Danglers‘.

Point of View 4: POV shifts – Working Examples

Let’s look at POV shifts within paragraphs and some possible solutions:

Version 1:  

autumn leaves 0034Julia smiled to  herself at happy memories of children tumbling amongst the fallen leaves in autumns long past. Now the only thing tumbling about in the garden was her husband, Simon. He vigorously rubbed the grit from his eyes with his hands, having accidentally hit himself in the face with the grubby roots of a particularly stubborn dandelion.

Julia’s cat stared at Simon curiously with her bright green eyes from the edge of the flowerbed. She wondered what he was doing and hoped that all that strange pulling and tugging on his part might be the prelude to a tasty morsel or perhaps an interesting game. Realising it was neither, she gave a loud yawn and stretched herself to her full length, before sauntering back in the direction of the house.

In the living room, Julia laughed. Poor Simon, she thought, even Puss thinks he’s boring.

Simon groaned. He hated this place. 

Version 2: 

autumn leaves 002Julia smiled to herself at happy memories of children tumbling amongst the fallen leaves in autumns long past. Now the only thing tumbling about in the garden was her husband, Simon.

Simon rubbed the grit from his eyes, having accidentally hit himself in the face with the grubby roots of a particularly stubborn dandelion. The pair of green feline eyes gazing curiously at him from the edge of flowerbed unnerved him. That cat – Julia’s cat – didn’t like him, he was sure of that. As if to prove his point, the animal gave a sudden loud yawn, stretched herself to her full length and sauntered in the direction of the house. Simon groaned. He hated this place.

Watching from the living room, Julia laughed. Poor Simon, she thought, even Puss thinks he’s boring.

Commentary: 

  • In Version 1, the POV shift from Julia’s point of view to Simon’s is unnerving. One sentence on, we get a further shift: we are now viewing Simon from the cat’s POV. Then we are back to Julia, then Simon again. The end result is confusion and irritation for the reader as they try to figure out on exactly who or what they should they be focussing, no doubt also asking themselves at the same time why they are having to work so hard.

  • Misc 2009010In Version 2, the shift from Julia’s POV is more clearly signposted (although still a little disconcerting). We’ve also lost Puss’s POV. This may be quirky, but it is distracting and makes the cat more significant than is warranted in the overall scheme of things. In addition, we are setting up reader expectations only to cruelly dash them, if this is the only instance of her POV. Cutting her out allows us to focus more clearly on Simon’s feelings, which is more useful for the story, and gives the reader a better sense of his and Julia’s relationship and the physical and emotional distance between them.

Whose story is it anyway? 

Of course, all of the above assumes that Julia and Simon are the two viewpoint characters in the story, but the tale could just as well be told solely from Julia’s POV or Simon’s POV, or indeed, entirely from Puss’s POV. Or you could use the cat yawning at Simon as the pivotal event in which the same story is told from three different points of view. To be honest, the possibilities are endless and the joy of being a writer is you get to try out as many as you wish. So, please, go explore and enjoy!

Point of View 3: Split personalities

You are perfectly at liberty to have more than one viewpoint character if you think it will serve your story best. Think fantasy epics such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series. Lots of books. Lots of characters. Lots of viewpoints.

Harry Potter 004The main problem with multiple viewpoints is how to manage the POV shifts between characters. Again, consistency is the order of the day. You need to set up a structure for the POV shifts and signpost them clearly, because shifting POV without warning is like speaking to someone without first catching their eye. The first time, they may be merely taken by surprise, but if it happens more than once, they will become irritated very quickly.

Most common is a pattern of alternating narrators, with POV shifts usually occurring between chapters or larger book divisions. There are no limits on the number of viewpoints, but be aware that if your readers are fully engaged with a particular character, they may be unhappy at a POV shift regardless of how well you manage it. The way around this problem, of course, is to make the next viewpoint character every bit as fascinating as the last (something to keep in mind if you are planning a large number of them). Beware also random minor characters who pop up to grab their fifteen minutes of POV fame. Unless they have some piece of information absolutely vital to the story which cannot be imparted any other way, remove them from the premises quietly and quickly. Don’t forget, the more viewpoints you have, the more goodwill required from your readers.

Dracula 003A good example of the use of multiple viewpoints is Bram Stoker’s classic vampire tale, Dracula. The story weaves between major and minor character narrations via letters, journals, interviews, ship’s logs and newspaper reports. The clever thing about the way the novel is structured is that each narration moves the plot forward in time and place, linked by and chronologically following Dracula’s physical journey from Transylvania to England and back again. Indeed, it is the reader’s awareness of this sinister thread of Dracula’s evil presence underlying the narrated events (and mostly unbeknownst to the other protagonists) which pulls the disparate sections of narrative into a cohesive whole and gives the story its overwhelming sense of menace and urgency.

A note of caution – one of the most common mistakes in early draft manuscripts is the unintentional POV shift within chapters or even paragraphs. We’ll look at this in more detail in the next post, but here’s a quick taster:

autumn leaves 0034‘Julia  smiled at happy memories of children tumbling amongst the fallen leaves in autumns long past. Now the only thing tumbling about in the garden was her husband, Simon. He vigorously rubbed the grit from his eyes with his dirty hands, having accidentally hit himself in the face with the grubby roots of a particularly stubborn dandelion. 

The POV shift from Julia to Simon may be subtle, but is unnerving nonetheless. Let’s face it, if readers have to work too hard to get the sense or atmosphere of a story, they may end up thinking less kindly of you as a writer. So keep an eye out for errant POV shifts to ensure you don’t end up with lots of  VARs (that is, Very Annoyed Readers).

Point of View 2: Limitation or opportunity?

You might think that choosing one character as the viewpoint character and sticking to them would solve any POV problems. Not necessarily. For example, if your first-person or third-person limited narrator doesn’t actually witness an important event in the story, then he or she can’t describe it.

Of course, in theory, you could use another character to tell that part of the story, but one of the main rules for POV is that it should be consistent. So if most of your story so far has been seen only through the eyes of one character, switching POV at this late stage may seriously disturb your reader. At the very least it will break their connection with the first character which has been building for most of the book and, once broken, there is no guarantee you will get it back again.

Jane 003Imagine, for example, if Jane Austen had discarded Elizabeth Bennett’s POV following Lydia’s elopement with Wickham in Pride and Prejudice and sent us galloping off to London with Mr Darcy instead. Apart from the consternation of finding ourselves suddenly flung into the intimate company of a man seen to this point only through Lizzie’s eyes, we would miss all the tension, irritation, anxiety and feelings of helplessness that our heroine goes through during her long wait for news in Longbourn. The advantage of all this soul-searching not only adds considerably to the reader’s experience of Elizabeth Bennett’s character, but also ups the ante for the moment when she learns the truth about Darcy’s role in rescuing her sister. And who better to tell Lizzie about Darcy’s involvement, but silly, indiscreet Lydia? A delicious combination of plot point and character moment.

If your narrator finds themselves in a similar situation, you do what writers have done for centuries: you get creative. You have your viewpoint character talk to people, overhear conversations, read letters, newspaper reports, books, secret diaries or files (or their modern-day technological equivalents), basically whatever it takes to get the information the reader needs.

Sun 001But no Deus ex machina, please. This Latin term meaning ‘god from a machine’ refers primarily to the Greek tragedy penchant for having gods ascend or descend miraculously in mechanical stage devices (hence the ‘machina‘) at the end of plays to provide improbably contrived resolutions to unsolvable situations. Please do keep your POV solutions within the context and internal logic of your viewpoint character and the world of your story.

Most of all, you should view the limitations of a narrator choice not as a downside, but as a virtue and a truly wonderful opportunity to build up oodles of character, atmosphere, tension and plot. What’s not to like?

Point of View 1: Whose story is it, anyway?

Choosing a point of view (POV) for your book is probably one of the most important decisions you will make as a writer. Why? Because in choosing to tell the story through the eyes of a particular character, you are also determining the reader’s journey through the book.

Harry Potter 002Think about it. The Harry Potter series of books would have been very different had they been told from the point of view of Hermione, Dumbledore or even Lord Voldemort. Well, they wouldn’t be Harry Potter books for a start!

Of course, choosing your viewpoint character is only first step. You will also have to decide the narration point of view. Second person narrative (you) is very rare, so the most common choice is between first person (I, we) or third person (he, she, it) narrative. Next, you will need to choose between subjective narration (inside a character’s head and describing their feelings or thoughts), or objective narration (staying out of people’s heads and reporting only what you see). Finally, you will need to decide whether your narrator’s point of view is limited (knowing everything there is to know from that character’s POV, but limited to that character) or are they omniscient (with an all encompassing knowledge of all characters, times and places).

What effect does a particular narrative point of view have on the reader’s experience of your novel?

Viewing a story through the eyes of a first-person narrator, either observing or participating in the action, connects the reader directly with the narrator and imbues the narrative with the immediacy and energy of an eyewitness account (for example, Raymond Chandler’s gumshoe, Philip Marlowe, in The Big Sleep).

Ray Chandler 002A third-person narrative puts more distance between the narrator and the story; the narrator is a not a character in the story but provides a bridge between the character and the reader. The reader can still engage with the character, whilst also allowing the author to manipulate the narrative without interfering with the character’s viewpoint (the Harry Potter series – told from Harry’s point of view, third-person narration limited).

So whose point of view is best for your story? That is a question only you can answer and exploring points of view can sometimes be what your first (and possibly second, third and fourth) draft is all about, as you try to figure out who is telling your story and why. So, if your novel is stuck in a rut and is refusing to go where you want it to go, maybe you should look at who’s telling the story. Just as in life itself, a completely new point of view or perspective can sometimes transform an old tale into a wholly new experience.